In talking with many of my friends who share similar political views it has been up and down this past week. We search for silver linings, we express anger and sadness, we try to calm ourselves down, and we aren’t always synchronized with others and so everybody can end up arguing with each other at some point. For me, when something unfathomable to me happens I try to understand as hard as I can. In many ways this is what led me to understand more about beliefs and why we have them and headed me down the path of neuroscience and cognitive science. This post will be a bit long, but please don’t be intimidated most of it is copy and pasted from an article that I thought was very well written. I hope you read the full articles, but if you don’t have time for that, you’ll have to settle for what I think are the most salient aspects.
A few weeks ago I wrote a post, that was the beginning of my investigation into trying to understand the support for Trump and generating some empathy for people who voted for him. And it worked. The eventual Trump win however caused me to go through some deeper introspection as to how I played a role in divisiveness and demonstrated a lack of empathy. So I came across a couple of wonderful articles (here is one nice balanced perspective) that looks at this rule vs. urban phenomenon more deeply and I think they are excellent reads. One of these articles I want to quote several passages. It is an interview with a UW-Madison sociology professor (Kathy Kramer) who has done a lot of research with rural Wisconsinites. Let’s take a look at some important passages from the article:
“Cramer argues that this “rural consciousness” is key to understanding which political arguments ring true to her subjects. For instance, she says, most rural Wisconsinites supported the tea party’s quest to shrink government not out of any belief in the virtues of small government but because they did not trust the government to help “people like them.”
“Support for less government among lower-income people is often derided as the opinions of people who have been duped,” she writes. However, she continues: “Listening in on these conversations, it is hard to conclude that the people I studied believe what they do because they have been hoodwinked. Their views are rooted in identities and values, as well as in economic perceptions; and these things are all intertwined.”
Here we can see an important problem. And the problem perhaps goes for many liberals as well. Our identities are tied up in our politics. Perhaps this should not be so. We know inside we will never get a candidate he really caters to everything we belief. In fact, most politicians don’t end up doing most of the things they say they are going to do in an election. It is because our identities are associated with politics that populists exploit them to gain support. What if instead we expected politicians to give detailed plans on how they would address the issues of all Americans? You might not be a person living in the rural counties of the rust belt, but what are their problems? And if you are a democratic party member should your candidate not be addressing those people? Sitting down and talking to them. The same goes for Republican candidates also.
“What I was hearing was this general sense of being on the short end of the stick. Rural people felt like they not getting their fair share.
That feeling is primarily composed of three things. First, people felt that they were not getting their fair share of decision-making power. For example, people would say: All the decisions are made in Madison and Milwaukee and nobody’s listening to us. Nobody’s paying attention, nobody’s coming out here and asking us what we think. Decisions are made in the cities, and we have to abide by them.
Second, people would complain that they weren’t getting their fair share of stuff, that they weren’t getting their fair share of public resources. That often came up in perceptions of taxation. People had this sense that all the money is sucked in by Madison, but never spent on places like theirs.
And third, people felt that they weren’t getting respect. They would say: The real kicker is that people in the city don’t understand us. They don’t understand what rural life is like, what’s important to us and what challenges that we’re facing. They think we’re a bunch of redneck racists.”
I thought this section of the article was very meaningful. The first point is something very similar to what I’ve experienced in Canada. People say things like “The feds aren’t listening to Francophones”, “the government is in the east, and nobody is listening to the west”, “government isn’t helping anyone in the rural areas”. If you are a journalist doing an in depth story on the problems of the day, you probably live in a city, and there are so many people of different walks of life there, you probably would never step outside the city limits. But the problems of the day are both urban and rural issues. I can imagine it must be difficult for people in rural areas to pay taxes but not see benefits from that. Now maybe they are and they don’t know it, but the fact that they have this perception is a valid thing that needs to be addressed. I can imagine a majority of tax money being used for urban purposes. Cities make the most noise usually, especially since that’s where the media focus is as well as where politicians spend most of their time. And her third point speaks to our own contribution to divisiveness between rural and urban. I’ll own up and say that I have over generalized in that manner and it was wrong. And even if they are racist, they are still human. Why do they have that attitude? Is it just ignorance? Is it that they have been fed false information? Is it anecdotal experience that was taken as truth instead of an exception? We all know we can easily succumb to such things and develop incorrect or harmful opinions and attitudes, despite the fact that we have the best of intentions.
In looking at attitudes of resentment Cramer has this to say:
“Look at all the graphs showing how economic inequality has been increasing for decades. Many of the stories that people would tell about the trajectories of their own lives map onto those graphs, which show that since the mid-’70s, something has increasingly been going wrong.
It’s just been harder and harder for the vast majority of people to make ends meet. So I think that’s part of this story. It’s been this slow burn.
Resentment is like that. It builds and builds and builds until something happens. Some confluence of things makes people notice: I am so pissed off. I am really the victim of injustice here.
Not much to say here other than problems don’t just go away, they keep getting worse when left unaddressed. I suspect democrats aren’t entirely to blame either. It’s been going on for years under various administrations. Maybe we can even see this as a source of a lot of racial issues that are cropping up now as well. Problems that have been happening for years and now resentment is just so high people are angry and upset.
On the issue of race there were several good points raised:
“We know that when people think about their support for policies, a lot of the time what they’re doing is thinking about whether the recipients of these policies are deserving. Those calculations are often intertwined with notions of hard work, because in the American political culture, we tend to equate hard work with deservingness.
And a lot of racial stereotypes carry this notion of laziness, so when people are making these judgments about who’s working hard, oftentimes people of color don’t fare well in those judgments. But it’s not just people of color. People are like: Are you sitting behind a desk all day? Well that’s not hard work. Hard work is someone like me — I’m a logger, I get up at 4:30 and break my back. For my entire life that’s what I’m doing. I’m wearing my body out in the process of earning a living.
In my mind, through resentment and these notions of deservingness, that’s where you can see how economic anxiety and racial anxiety are intertwined.”
While race certainly plays a role there is again this blue collar vs white collar, rural vs. urban issue popping up again. My father was a machinist and so really appreciate the value of his work and others like him. I have often worried about how my son will perceive those people in society given that he won’t have personal experience the way that I have. But we do live very much in a society where blue collar jobs, low wage workers in retail or the restaurant industry are looked down upon. I had read an article a few years ago from the perspective of a poor single mother who worked every day, lived paycheck to paycheck, and was on welfare. She said that she didn’t mind being poor or being somebody who had to work a lot harder than everybody else and not really get ahead, but what mattered most was that people actually felt that she had value. We shame and dehumanize a lot in this society. Some people are not good people. Some are lazy, racist, misogynistic, xenophobes, apathetic, selfish, but they are still human and we have to ask always, how did they get that way? And if they are treated with kindness and humanity, is there a way in which we can make them a better person? Cramer continues with:
“It’s absolutely racist to think that black people don’t work as hard as white people. So what? We write off a huge chunk of the population as racist and therefore their concerns aren’t worth attending to?
How do we ever address racial injustice with that limited understanding?
Of course [some of this resentment] is about race, but it’s also very much about the actual lived conditions that people are experiencing. We do need to pay attention to both.
Great words. The interviewer then asks about the idea of people not feeling like they are getting what they deserve:
“Part of where that comes from is just the overarching story that we tell ourselves in the U.S. One of the key stories in our political culture has been the American Dream — the sense that if you work hard, you will get ahead.
Well, holy cow, the people I encountered seem to me to be working extremely hard. I’m with them when they’re getting their coffee before they start their workday at 5:30 a.m. I can see the fatigue in their eyes. And I think the notion that they are not getting what they deserve, it comes from them feeling like they’re struggling. They feel like they’re doing what they were told they needed to do to get ahead. And somehow it’s not enough.
Oftentimes in some of these smaller communities, people are in the occupations their parents were in, they’re farmers and loggers. They say, it used to be the case that my dad could do this job and retire at a relatively decent age, and make a decent wage. We had a pretty good quality of life, the community was thriving. Now I’m doing what he did, but my life is really much more difficult.”
When I read this passage it really made me think that this is what a lot of Americans are facing, not just ones in rural areas. I’ve seen many articles about how the millennial generation struggle compared to their parents simply with costs being much higher in comparison to wages. Even with a professor wage I know I have less buying power per dollar than my parents did. There are so many Americans facing the same struggle financially. The theme continues and Bernie Sanders gets a mention:
“It’s not inevitable that people should assume that the decline in their quality of life is the fault of other population groups. In my book I talk about rural folks resenting people in the city. In the presidential campaign, Trump is very clear about saying: You’re right, you’re not getting your fair share, and look at these other groups of people who are getting more than their fair share. Immigrants. Muslims. Uppity women.
But here’s where having Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump running alongside one another for a while was so interesting. I think the support for Sanders represented a different interpretation of the problem. For Sanders supporters, the problem is not that other population groups are getting more than their fair share, but that the government isn’t doing enough to intervene here and right a ship that’s headed in the wrong direction.”
I thought this was an interesting observation. I too saw the excitement Bernie had been getting among more rural and working class voters. Whether you agreed with his solutions are not, he was also resonating with those that were angry at the government, those that felt the government wasn’t serving their best interests. Maybe he still wouldn’t have won the presidency, but I do think he at least took the right approach into reaching people and finding common ground among both urban and rural working class citizens.
So what is the way out of this all? Cramer had this to say:
“People for months now have been told they’re absolutely right to be angry at the federal government, and they should absolutely not trust this woman, she’s a liar and a cheat, and heaven forbid if she becomes president of the United States. Our political leaders have to model for us what it’s like to disagree, but also to not lose basic faith in the system. Unless our national leaders do that, I don’t think we should expect people to.”
As much as I’d like to believe that everybody can just pick themselves up by their bootstraps I know that it is really not possible. I’ve felt for some time that it is our leadership who actually have to convince us that they serve us and not special interest groups. They need be more vocal about us coming together. Sadly I think many of them know that keeping us divided is a more effective way to keep power than to get us to unite.
In the end Cramer reminds us that empathy, that talking to each other face-to-face and listening are the most valuable tools we have as individuals:
“One of the very sad aspects of resentment is that it breeds more of itself. Now you have liberals saying, “There is no justification for these points of view, and why would I ever show respect for these points of view by spending time and listening to them?”
Thank God I was as naive as I was when I started. If I knew then what I know now about the level of resentment people have toward urban, professional elite women, would I walk into a gas station at 5:30 in the morning and say, “Hi! I’m Kathy from the University of Madison”?
I’d be scared to death after this presidential campaign! But thankfully I wasn’t aware of these views. So what happened to me is that, within three minutes, people knew I was a professor at UW-Madison, and they gave me an earful about the many ways in which that riled them up — and then we kept talking.
And then I would go back for a second visit, a third visit, a fourth, fifth and sixth. And we liked each other. Even at the end of my first visit, they would say, “You know, you’re the first professor from Madison I’ve ever met, and you’re actually kind of normal.” And we’d laugh. We got to know each other as human beings.
That’s partly about listening, and that’s partly about spending time with people from a different walk of life, from a different perspective. There’s nothing like it. You can’t achieve it through online communication. You can’t achieve it through having good intentions. It’s the act of being with other people that establishes the sense we actually are all in this together.
I’ve always grown in my life when I’ve gotten to know people from different walks of life and I need to continue. Make an effort to do so. It was easier growing up because I met so many people from other countries, with various levels of education and careers. When one has a career themselves it gets a little harder. I know pretty much other professors and students. Maybe I need to help Kathy Cramer with her research. 🙂
When it comes to terrorism and the issue of Syrian refugees I’ve spent a lot of time showing research and trying to explain to people the importance of compassion and how disenfranchising people who need our help is likely to increase the level of extremism and not reduce it. It plays into ISIS’ hands. And this is all true. But what if, and I know it’s not all people who voted for Trump, but what is there are lot of disenfranchised white rural voters living in poverty? Is it likely that they might start adopt more extreme views as well? It’s an interesting pause for thought.
So in this post I maybe haven’t give a lot of love to all of us who are hurting right now, but I felt this part of the discussion is important. In my next post, I will talk more about why I think many of us have cause for concern at the new government we face, and how the empathy that I have tried to build here for the Trump voter is not just a one way street.